It might be early October, but a loss to Barcelona would put a quick end to Real Madrid's hope of repeating as La Liga champions in 2012.
Real Madrid enters the first Clasico of the season in seventh place with a 3-1-2 record and 10 points. They are eight points behind Barcelona, who, at 6-0-0, sit alone in first place with 18 points on the season.
To their credit, Real Madrid has overcome a slow start to the year and won their last two La Liga matches: a much-needed clean sheet against Rayo Vallecano and a 5-1 drubbing of Deportivo.
And while Barca has been hot, they are not without their issues—especially on defense.
Carles Puyol will miss the match with a dislocated elbow, and Gerard Pique is doubtful with an injured foot. That could force Barcelona to rely on Javier Maschereno and Alex Song—a pair that allowed Sevilla to net two goals at the end of September, though Barca held on for the 3-2 win—in the center of their defense.
They are also playing without centre-middle Thiago Alcantara, who is out of action with a knee injury.
Real Madrid must capitalize on those absences and bring home a win against their the Blaugrana.
Los Blancos coach Jose Mourinho might decide to stay with his normal attacking 4-2-3-1 setup in order to spread out the pitch, but this match screams for him to utilize both Michael Essien and Luka Modric more than he has thus far.
Cristiano Ronaldo remains the focal point of Real Madrid's offensive attack, and, as always, they will have to be mindful of where Barca attacker Lionel Messi is on the field at all times.
It won't be easy, but this is a must-win contest for Ronaldo and company.